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Wednesday, Feb 8, 2012, 3:27 pm

After Santorum’s Big Wins, Are We Closer to War With Iran?

By Theo Anderson

Republican presidential candidate former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum hugs his wife, Karen, following announcement of his victory in the Missouri primary on February 7.
(Photo by Whitney Curtis/Getty Images)

Rick Santorum’s sweep of the races in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri on Tuesday didn’t just revive his campaign for the GOP nomination. It also made war with Iran in the near future more likely than it was two days ago.  

The GOP has been in an unfamiliar place for most of the early election season. With the economy improving, their traditional advantage in the realms of defense and foreign affairs will be critical to their prospects in the fall election. But President Obama’s successes in the “war on terror” and in Libya have left them searching for a foreign-policy foothold.

Enter the Iran factor. It’s been an on-again, off-again issue for a long time. As the ex-GOP Congressional staffer Mike Lofgren writes in this trenchant essay, Iran has been perpetually been “two or three years away from obtaining a nuclear weapon” for the last three decades. Each time the issue flares again, war hawks claim that Iran is right on the verge of having nuclear weapons, and that it poses a danger so immense that we have no choice but to act.  

In truth, as James Fallows points out, American intelligence sources can’t say with certainty whether Iran even has a nuclear weapons program, much less whether it’s close to having the weapons.

A strong resurgence by Santorum will likely shift the tenor of the GOP debates sharply to the right. Gingrich and Romney's have been hawkish so far, but their position is a model of restraint in comparison with Santorum's. The two want to keep the option of bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities open, but they hedge on whether it would be an effective strategy and acknowledge its pitfalls. There’s been no hedging by Santorum, who promises that if he becomes president, he will force the Iranians to open their nuclear facilities to inspection. If they refuse, he says, the U.S. will “degrade” them through airstrikes.

While Santorum was a minor player in the GOP primaries, Romney could afford to straddle the fence on this one. But if Santorum becomes a serious challenger, Romney will likely join him on the far-right fringes.  Politically, he won’t have much choice. For conservatives, the obsession with Iran’s nuclear weapons is really about protecting Israel, which is among the handful of highest priorities for the religious right, a voting bloc with whom Romney is already in deep trouble.  

The upshot is that if Santorum continues to rise, you can expect the war drums to bang more loudly and insistently. And you can bet that plenty of conservatives will be ready and willing to fall in line and march the nation right into another war.

Perhaps this sounds far-fetched. After all, such a war would be based not on good intelligence, but on an abundance of ideological zeal surrounding a demonized Muslim country—that couldn’t happen, could it?

Theo Anderson, an In These Times staff writer, is writing a book about the historical and contemporary influence of pragmatism on American politics. He has a Ph.D. in American history from Yale University and teaches history and literature seminars at the Newberry Library in Chicago.

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